Ciarán & Elaine's Travelog

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Trekking in Chiang Mai

We booked a three day trek from Chiang Mai into the surrounding hills. Leaving Chiang Mai we were first brought to see the 'Long Neck' and 'Big Ear' (!) tribes who have fled to Thailand from Burma. As the name suggests they've got long necks and big ears.

The girls begin wearing rings on their neck when they're 5 years old and until they're 25 a new ring is added each year until eventually their neck is freakishly long. They say that it doesn't hurt at all but we can't imagine how that's possible considering the weight of the brass rings. They're taken off once or twice a year to be cleaned but apart from that they're worn 24 hours a day. The reason they say they wear the rings is to protect them from tigers!, so that they look more like they're tribal symbol the dragon and to make them look ugly so that the men from the other tribes don't take them!

After that it was on to the elephant camp where we had lunch and then a ride on an elephant which was just brilliant. The elephants were massive and we were in a little seat strapped to its back at first. He lumbered up through the mud along the side of the mountain with quite a steep drop off, it was quite scary when he lurched from side to side.

We had an elephant keeper sitting on his head/neck who steered him with different commands and his feet - he'd rub the back of his right ear to make him go left and vice versa. When we got down from the side of the hill the keeper got off and Ciaran rode on his neck. He says that he could feel all the huge muscles in his head, shoulders and neck and felt like he was going to fall off at any minute. We couldn't get over how hairy his head was (the elephant, not Ciaran!). I stayed safely tucked up in the little seat and we wandered down into the river where he started sucking up the water in his trunk and spraying it all over us. Considering he'd been spraying snot at us for the past half hour this was quite enjoyable!

As we rode back to the elephant camp he stopped for ages to eat lychees from the tree and then lumbered back up the hill. Back at the camp we fed him a bunch of bananas, it was great when he took them with his trunk from our hands and then tossed them into his mouth. Such a fantastic experience.

We met up with the rest of the group who were doing the trek; Scarlet, Haylie, Luke, James, Kelly and Jeremy and along with our guide, Chin, we jumped into the back of a truck and were driven to the beginning of the trek.

The beginning of the trek was really steep with about 1 1/2 hours of climbing uphill, crossing streams on some of the best Thai engineered bamboo bridges (they were terrible, I don't know how we didn't fall in!) and scrambling up muddy banks. After about half an hour one of the girls decided it was too steep for her and gave up and turned back. We spent about 3 or 4 hours walking through the Thai jungle it was really beautiful but so humid and hot we were all completely drenched in sweat.

We reached our village for the first night which was with the Meo tribe who were refugees from Burma. This meant that although many of them were born in Thailand they could never be issued with Thai passports, just an ID card stating that they were part of a hill tribe if they were lucky enough to be born in a hospital. If they were born in the village they couldn't receive the ID card and so therefor could never go further south than Chiang Mai. Makes us realise how lucky we are.

The village was made up of little bamboo huts on the side of a hill in a valley with a big waterfall at one end. After a hard afternoons hiking it was so refreshing to jump into the waterfall to cool down. Our sleeping area was a long bamboo hut with mats on the floor and mozzie nets, definitely not 5 star tonight!

After a great dinner cooked by the guides and some of the people from the village we all sat around having a few drinks and chatting to any of the locals that could speak any English. Then it was off to bed for a fairly sleepless night with 8 people tossing and turning in one little room....

Day 2 of the trek

Waking up to the sound of all the jungle was really amazing. Unfortunately we'd both been eaten alive by mosquitoes during the night with Ciarans legs taking a particularly bad biting.
After breakfast we set off again up the mountains through bamboo jungle. We walked for another 4 hours, stopping to explore some bat caves and then for another swim at a different waterfall where we saw a small stripy watersnake battling against the current. Some of the guys were jumping from the cliff 20 ft down into the plunge pool below - quite cool looking!

Eventually we reached the village of the Lahu tribe where we would be staying for the night. We were supposed to spend another 3 hours hiking up to another waterfall but the rainy season has come 1 month early and the sky was black so it seemed like a better idea to just hang around the village instead of risking getting caught in the rain.

We spent an hour or two wandering around the village which consists of about 10 bamboo huts to house the 60 people who lived there (including the ladyboy shopkeeper). There were chickens, pigs, dogs roaming everywhere and we spent a while playing with the kids who are absolutely wild. Then the rain started pouring down it was really torrential, I've never seen anything like it. We sat inside our hut which was our bedroom, living room and kitchen all in one and watched the rain outside until eventually we could barely see outside the door it was falling so heavily.

That evening pretty much all the men from the village came to our hut and sat around playing the guitar and singing Thai songs (every now and then a bit of Bob Marley would slip through....). With Chin, our guide, cooking dinner on an open fire in the middle of the hut it was definitely an unusual evening but really great fun with plenty of chang beer floating around although I didn't fancy any it was good to laugh at everyone else getting a bit too merry.

Day 3 of the trek

After a surprisingly good sleep I woke up and waited for all the others to surface. Chin, our guide, who's a really funny, good hearted guy eventually woke up at about 11am absolutely dying from the excess of the night before. He really was in a bad way and tried to convince us to take a short cut, an easy 40 minute route downhill instead of 2 1/2 hours uphill but we decided that we were here to trek in the jungle so thats what we should do and headed off up the mountain.

The start of the trek was particularly steep and for about half an hour we were regretting not taking the downhill option but eventually the track levelled off a bit and we were up in the jungle again. Poor Chin was completely wrecked though, he looked like he was going to collapse at any minute, stopping with his head against the tree muttering 'why oh why', not the most inspirational leader but it made us laugh!

Eventually we reached a little house in the middle of nowhere, we had some lunch and then jumped on the back of a sangthaew and were driven to the river where we jumped into a raft and went lubber lafting (white water rafting) for an hour or so. It was good fun particularly because the water level in the river was low and the raft kept getting stuck on the rocks.

After the white water rafting we went bamboo rafting. We'd never heard of this before but it was a lovely way to end the 3 days. The raft was basically some bamboo poles tied together and we just sat on them while a guy 'punted' us down a really calm stretch of the river.

That night, after a much needed shower, we went to the Riverside bar and restaurant and had a
great evening listening to Thai bands singing western songs with their Thai accents, we never realised a Killers song could sound so funny!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Chilling in Chiang Mai

We left Bangkok and got the overnight train to Chiang Mai. With quite a bit of difficulty the seats on the train changed into bunk beds and we cosied up with our curtains drawn and watched a movie on my ipod - thank God for luxuries! We tried to sleep as best we could but with the constant stops, the movement of the train and the lights being left on all night we didn't get too much sleep and got into Chiang Mai train station at 10am the next morning pretty tired only to be set upon by hordes of taxi and tuk tuk drivers all hanging out of us, trying to get our business for the short ride into town.

We eventually went with the least intrusive taxi driver (the taxi's in Chiang Mai are called sangthaews and are basically red pickup trucks with 2 rows of side-facing seats, a roof and an open back) and went into town. We found a guest house called SK House on Moonmuang Soi 9 that has a nice pool - something really nice to have in the hot afternoons.
The reason we left Bangkok when we did was for the Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan and we hooked up with a few other Irish lads in the guest house and headed out that night after a few warm up beers. The pub we had been told to go to was closed and I was starting to think I wouldn't see the game at all but 7 of us piled into 1 tuk tuk and we raced around the streets of Chiang Mai looking for an open bar that was showing the match. We eventually found one just before kickoff. The less said about the game after that the better I suppose. Good performance, bad result will suffice. After that we headed out to a few nightclubs on Loi Kroh Road - all of which seemed to be full of Thai girls who were interested in more than a bit of dancing.

We decided that we couldn't come to Thailand without learning how to cook some of that tasty Thai food we'd become fond of in Australia so we went on a 1 day Thai cookery course with "The Best Thai Cookery Course" company! Its run by a cool, funny guy called Permpoon (his brother is a TV chef over here) and we spent the day cooking in his outdoor kitchen at his house outside Chiang Mai.
We started the day going shopping for all our fresh herbs, spices and other ingredients at the local market - we never knew choosing an egg was such a complicated task! When we saw a woman gutting frogs (with a basin of live ones in a net beside her) and some fried chicken heads, we decided to give that stall a miss! Yeuch! We spent the rest of the day cooking (I learned to cook 'adventure style'!!) and eating all our gorgeous food - 8 dishes in all. We both had to be rolled out of the place by the end!

The next night we went to see some Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) in Kawila stadium. We got a tuk tuk to a ramshackle shed which passed as the stadium and saw guys weighing 8 stone beat the living hell out of each other. 8 stone they may be, but weaklings they are not. They start training at 7 years old and their first exercise is kicking banana plants to toughen up their legs and shins - pretty rough. We saw guys getting knees to the face, kicks to the head, being thrown to the ground and an Aussie guy beat a Thai guy by TKO by smashing him so hard in the nuts! Every guy in the stadium winced at that part...

We went out and were planning on getting a Sangthaew home, but it turns out the people we ended up sharing the taxi with were more Irish people staying at our guest house. So we needed no further excuse to go for a drink and went out for the rest of the night, ending up in some Thai hiphop night club where all the peeps thought they were fiddy cent with their caps on at odd angles. We ended the night eating pork noodle soup at the side of the road at 5 am - I can't believe we haven't gotten food poisoning yet!

Apart from that we've been spending time reading, checking out the temples in town and one day we took a sangthaew up to Doi Suthep which is this really amazing temple on top of a mountain. We ended up going up on the day of Budda's enlightenment (Visthaew Bucha or something)and the place was packed with people offering gifts and lighting incense. Even the monsoonal downpour that started while we were up there didn't stop them. There was something quite nice and peaceful sitting there while the rain pelted down and the thunder clapped.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Bedlam in Bangkok!

After 9 brilliant months in Australia it was time to move on to somewhere new. So after a flight to Singapore and a 6 hour wait in Singapore airport we eventually arrived in Bangkok.

Immediately we were blown away by the bedlam and noise on the streets outside the airport, they drive like complete lunatics over here but it's kind of exciting, feels great to be somewhere 'foreign' again! We headed straight to the backpacker mecca 'Khao San road' where the fashion seems to be fisherman pants and sunburn with the obligatory Chang beer in hand.

We spent about a week exploring Bangkok, it's a fantastic city with so much to see but even just wandering up and down the streets and laneways (Soi) is an experience in itself. With food stalls every few steps, the smell of pad thai, spices and curries pervades the air and in the evening drink stands set up in every available piece of street. It's been great fun trying out all the different food from the stands. Sitting down on an upturned crate to enjoy a delicious stir fry and a beer which cost a grand total of about 50 baht which is only EUR1 for both food and drink!!

Soi Rambuttri is one of our favourite little laneways with so much happening, a constant chatter in the air and the rattle of the tuk-tuks racing down the laneway, jumping out of the way before they run us down becomes more difficult after a few Changs.... one of the drink stands on Soi Rambuttri is a converted old VW van with the roof taken off and the side windows removed to serve drink through - very funky. We watched the FA Cup final in a Shell petrol station which becomes a bar in the evening. They just put a few seats and tables in amongst the petrol pumps, set up a big tv screen and hey presto you've got a bar!

Khao San road and the surrounding soi's are swamped with market stalls selling pretty much everything you'd ever need to buy and lots more including a giant cigarette lighter about the size of my head, it's hilarious, who on earth would ever want to buy something like that?! And the 'Frog ladies' who walk along the street rattling sticks over wooden frogs are brilliant, always trying to catch your eye and entice you into buying anything they can sell.

The Thai people are just lovely, really gentle people, always smiling and friendly. Although they're always trying to sell something too so maybe that's why they're so friendly..... They're pretty much all devout Buddhists and are full of respect for their religion and their king with even the taxi's decorated with symbols of buddhism and one day a week they all wear yellow t-shirts in honour of the king.

As a city of nearly 10 million people it's got the pollution to match with the air so bad it's completely normal to see people going about their business with smog masks on. The heat doesn't feel too much after the last few weeks in Australia but the humidity is quite stifling.

Nobody walks anywhere, it's taxi's and tuk tuks all the way which might explain why the air is so polluted and the traffic so crazy. The tuk tuks are great fun to get around town in. They literally zoom in and out of traffic and pay no heed to lanes, indicators, traffic lights and without a doubt never ever stop for people crossing the road. You take your life in your hands as you make a mad dash across the roads. Everyone drives like there's no tomorrow with one particular taxi driver reaching 120km on a completely congested stretch of road, he just kept moving in and out of lanes, speeding up and slamming on the brakes. We couldn't believe how fast he was going. By the time we were getting out we were both feeling as sick as anything and Ciaran looked like a ghost but the driver turned around laughing saying 'Schumacher Schumacher!', he thought it was hilarious! When we eventually arrived at Soi Cowboy our guts were turned even more to see the locals eating fried cockroaches and giant beetles at the side of the road. We did discover that night though that the ping pongs have been replaced by darts which held a particular fascination for Ciaran...

But Bangkok has more to offer than just mayhem and madness. Mixed in amongst all this are some beautiful Buddhist temples and and palaces to rival anything we've seen anywhere else.

We hired a Tuk Tuk driver for a day to bring us around to some of the temples and tourist sites and we were amazed at how many ornately decorated places there are. We went to a temple with an image of Buddha outside that stood about 20 metres tall and after that it was on to the Golden Mount where we climbed up to see the giant golden chedi with views over the city. After that it was off to the Marble Temple where a lot of monks live. There were monks everywhere and we waited outside the temple admiring the oriental style roofs and many Buddha-lined courtyards while they chanted and prayed inside.

We've seen so many monks wandering around the place. They stand out from the crowd in their bright orange garbs and the ones we've seen vary in age from 10 years old to about 80! There is something odd about seeing them on their mobile phones though - the picture doesn't quite fit!

We'd been warned about being 'scammed' in Thailand but naturally we don't listen to warnings, so when our driver decided to bring us on a detour on the way back, stopping off at several tailors and jewelery stores to try and earn some commission, we just sat there and laughed. He looked a bit disappointed dropping us off at our guest house, though he should've known that us stingy backpackers are never going to buy a diamond ring on a whim.

Another way of getting around the city is on the river ferries along Chao Praya and the next day we took a ferry and visited The Grand Palace, which is the kings old residence. This place blew us away, with all the little altars of worship decorated so colourfully and huge demon warrior statues at the gates protecting the way.

Beside The Grand Palace are Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho. Wat Phra Kaew is the temple of the emerald buddha which is one of the main tourist attractions in Thailand and completely mobbed with people. The decorations are so detailed and ornate you can understand why. Wat Pho houses the biggest reclining Buddha in Thailand and we've been told that it shows Buddha as he is achieving enlightenment and entering Nirvana, he certainly looks fairly happy! It is absolutely massive - 15 metres tall and 47 metres long - they take their images of the Buddha very seriously over here!

So all in all we've loved Bangkok, I didn't really expect to but we'll be travelling through here again in about a month and we're already looking forward to a pad thai and chang beer on soi Rambuttri....

Monday, May 14, 2007

Destination Darwin....

Well it's our last day in the van and after 4 weeks and just shy of 8000 km's we have eventually made it from Perth to Darwin.

We've got a few days now in Darwin to get organised i.e. do our blog! throw out all our horrible old clothes etc before flying to Thailand on Wednesday night.

We don't intend doing much in Darwin although last night we went to the Mindill beach markets which was brilliant. Lots of people sitting around waiting on the sunset (I think we must've seen about 1 million sunsets by now but were still not bored!), having a drink or some food from the Roadkill cafe in the markets (Ciaran had emu, crocodile and buffalo for dinner!) and just enjoying the bands that are playing and the atmosphere of the night markets.

3 days left in Australia - Oh My God!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Litchfield National Park

We didn't think anything would top the crocodile cruise of that morning but on the way to Litchfield we stopped at The Didgeridoo Hut to check out some of the didgs and artwork and on our way out we saw a baby kangaroo and possum that had been orphaned and were being cared for by the owners.

The possum was cute and everything but it was the little roo that got all the attention as he jumped around on unsteady legs and tried to hop into Elaines "pouch" whenever she crouched down. I think Elaine would have taken him home there and then! He was so gorgeous and soft and we want one as a pet now! There was a Flaming Galah (Alf Stewart would be proud) that took quite a shine to Dads camera too and kept trying to eat his lens cap!

We eventually dragged ourselves away from the little roo and headed on down the road to Litchfield NP where we had a relaxing afternoon and just spent the rest of the day reading and swimming in the pool (and killing all the bloody bugs in the evening).

Next day we went to Wangi Fall which is one of the highlights of the park however the swimming hole was closed because of crocodiles in the water and the walking track was closed because of bushfires but just to see the falls was still fantastic one big and one smaller waterfall in a lush green grotto gushing into the plunge pool.

We headed on to Tolmer falls where we had a chance to take a short walk and view this waterfall. It's completely different from Wangi, with the water flowing under a limestone arch and then over a 30metre drop.

The third and final waterfall of the day was Florence Fall. We took the 5km walk from Buley Rockhole which is a really gorgeous river with lots of people swimming in all the little cascades. The sun was absoloutely baking us by the time we got to the falls so we dived straight in. God the water was so cold! After messing about for a half hour or so and making sure we were cooled down enough we headed back to the van and the campsite for our last day on the road. Tomorrow we head to Darwin, our final destination in Australia.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Crikey, jumping Crocs!

We left the Coroboree Roadhouse the next morning which incidentally has its very own saltwater croc in a cage beside the front gate (only in Australia!), and headed about 50 km up the road to the Adelaide River where we took a crocodile cruise.

The "cruise" entailed basically going down the river about 2 km and dangling hunks of meats off the side of the boat on wooden sticks to see how many crocs we could attract. And attract the crocs we did. Within a few minutes of setting off we could see them coming towards our boat. We saw about 8 in total - mainly smaller females about 3 metres long but also the dominant male of the area - Bogart. He's about 5.5 metres long, ferocious looking and battle scarred with only 1 full leg left, the other 3 have been bitten off in fights with other males over the years! Another dominant male from the next section of the river came into Bogart's area while we were on the boat and in true Aussie style the captain of the boat tried to instigate a fight by forcing them further together, but in the end there was no fight. A bit disappointing for us though!

The highlight of the cruise really was the feeding though because, with the meat in the water still attached to the stick, when the crocs went for it they raised it out of the water and those hungry crocs just jumped straight up out of the water to snatch it off the end of the pole. They came so far out (most of their body length) and we all got a great look at how big they are. We did this several times with different crocs and not one of them failed to disappoint, hurling themselves out of the water to get at the food.

Food was also left dangling for some birds of prey to get and we were lucky enough to see a white bellied sea eagle swoop down and pluck it off the end of the pole - they move so fast and are so accurate. Then on the way back, smaller bits of meat were flung into the water and about 15 hawks flying around came down and tucked in, grabbing it from the waters surface.

It was such a brilliant cruise and something I don't think we'll ever forget.

After that it was on to Litchfield NP...

Thursday, May 10, 2007


We arrived in Kakadu in the evening and we went to watch another beautiful sunset at Yellow Waters. A local there warned us not to sit on the jetty with our legs dangling as there are 5 metre saltwater crocodiles in the area and our legs would just be a little snack to them!

We had planned on doing a walk all around Yellow Waters as the place is supposed to be teeming with birds and other wildlife, but because its so soon after the rainy season, the boardwalk is still under 3 metres of water - guess that rules the walk out so... They had a late wet season this year in the Northern Territory with the rains only stopping about 4 weeks ago so quite a lot of the place is still recovering from the floods. They've also started the bush burn off so we're constantly driving past bush fires. Some of them are only tiny patches of land, maybe 3m x 3m but other fires are really quite huge and the smoke and heat as you drive by is tremendous. It's really cool to see though!

After a lazy morning we headed on to Nourlangie Rock where we saw some great examples of well preserved Aboriginal Rock Art. The art was a lot more interesting that we thought it would be and the view from the lookout on the escarpment over the floodplains was fantastic.

After a stop off at Annbangbang Billabong we drove on to Coroboree, stopping for a while when we saw some joeys playing on the grass outside a roadhouse.

We stayed in a roadhouse campsite that night which we later renamed the valley of the damned because the bugs, mozzies and other assorted beasties were just totally out of control there (from the recent floods apparently). Practically every surface in the van was covered with some weird crawley and there were beetles that were (no exaggeration) the size of the palm of your hand and about an inch high - needless to say Elaine was freaking out and to be fair I wasn't too happy myself. There was nothing else for it, we abandoned ship and headed to the roadhouse bar (trying not to stand on all the cane toads along the way) and that was an experience in itself.

The bar was Hicksville, Tenessee and the mullet was the 'doo' du jour. It was the locals pool night so all the local weirdos were out, complete with ticks, twitches, ripped clothes and cowboy hats. We were the only people there wearing shoes which was particularly disturbing especially when one of the local women stood on one of the giant scorpion beetles - I thought Elaine was going to have a heart attack! Despite first impressions, the people were great craic, really friendly salt of the earth type people and we ended up staggering back to our tent at 1am, not in any state to be worrying about giant bugs...

Next up - jumping crocodiles!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Kununurra to Katherine & Edith

We left Kununurra and drove our last kilometres through The Kimberley. The Kimberley has been a real highlight of the West Coast with its red escarpments, beautiful National Parks and giant Boab trees - its realy been gorgeous.

We leave W.A. and cross the border into the N.T., stopping for a picnic breakfast beside Cockatoo Lagoon in the Keep River National Park, then it's back on the road for a long drive to Katherine.

Another early start saw us out at Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park. After a brisk walk up the escarpment to the lookout over the first gorge we boarded our boat for our 2 hour cultural cruise through the gorge. The sheer limestone walls of the gorge were stunning and it's easy to see why this is a special place for the Aboriginal people. Our guide on the cruise was aboriginal and he told us stories of how they hunt and kill in that region which was really intereting and also how they celebrate with special ceremonies. The Katherine river zigzags its way through a series of 13 gorges in this section of the river and although the guide warns us that we're surrounded by crocodiles, all we managed to see were some old croc trails and a snake.

Leaving Katherine we drove on to Leilyn/Edith Falls campground where we had a lovely cool dip in the plunge pool at sunset.

Early the next morning we set out on a 12 km hike through the bush to Sweetwater Pool and then on to Edith Falls. It was a great hike, passing by rivers and little cascades although sometimes walking through hip high grass in a country full of killer snakes and spiders could get a bit much and we'd break into a jog! We were walking through the scorching midday heat by the time we reached Edith Falls, so the cool water was a welcome relief.

The falls themselves were beautiful - water gushing down in a sand coloured alcove and we whiled away an hour there swimming against the current and diving beneath the falls. We could've stayed there all day just messing about in the water. Another couple of kms saw us fairly tired and back at the carpark for the drive to Kakadu.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Wyndham & Kununurra

Leaving Turkey Creek roadhouse we headed north towards Wyndham. Just outside Wyndham we stopped at The Grotto which is a natural watering hole and was perfect for a cooling mid morning swim. The Grotto is the type of place that Bounty Ads are made of - wow!
Wyndham wasn't a very exciting place so after a quick stop there we headed back to the highway and on to Kununurra which is pretty much the last town in The Kimberley.
We stayed at the Ivanhoe campsite in Kununurra which was brilliant, mainly because of it's shady swimming pool! We had a gorgeous meal out in the local pub (each steak was big enough to feed 5 people!) and had a couple of days visiting great little places in the local area.

We went up to Ivanhoe Crossing where you have to watch your step or you'll likely stand on a crocodile - although that still didn't stop the locals standing in the middle of the river fishing. On one side it's safe but the otherside is full of crocs.

We went to Hidden Valley (Miriana NP) and spent a couple of hours walking and exploring there. It's really beautiful, lush green and with lots of 'mini bungle bungles'. After that we went to The Zebra Rock Gallery and spent lots of time relaxing in the gardens there and feeding the fish and turtles in the river at the bottom of the garden. The rock that they mine at Zebra Rock is brown and cream and stripy like a zebra, it was very tempting to buy some of their carvings but I don't really fancy the idea of lugging a piece of rock around Asia for the next 10 weeks. While we were there we spotted loads of little puppies that were just hiding in the bush outside the workshop - they were so cute and we played with them for a while but eventually we had to drag Elaine away - she would have spent all day there with them!

We also saw the floodgates of the Diversion Dam on the Ord River being opened. The dam holds 9 times the amount of water that's in Sydney Harbour so it was a fairly powerful sight to see all that water gushing through. We finished off the afternoon with a trip to the Hoochery rum distillery (very tasty!) and then up to Kelley's Knob to watch the sunset over Kunnunura.